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SC Rewind: Remembering Orr Lake

Published: May 25, 2019 11:02 am ET

Last Comment: May 29, 2019 12:26 pm ET | 7 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In the latest edition of 'Rewind' Robert Smith goes back in time an amazing 70 years ago to 1949. Was anything happening then? The short answer was YES as a matter of fact quite a few things were going on in the wonderful world of harness racing. As time goes on I may even find a few more stories from back then.

This week I have resurrected a great old story that was current 70 years ago. While I relied heavily on the reports contained in the archives of the Barrie Examiner newspaper, I also thought how great it would be to converse with someone who was actually around at that time and had some personal memories. This person was not only present, he was also a winning driver on the track's opening day. That man was none other than Keith Waples. A visit with him is always sure to brighten my day and I am always pleased to record his recollections and proverbial words of wisdom in my memory bank.

New Track Opens At Orr Lake, Ont.

Late in the afternoon of Saturday, August 13, 1949, Canada's newest racetrack opened at this small community located some 20 miles north of Barrie, Ontario in Simcoe County. The track owner and operator, Clarence Crowe had recently completed the facility and planned the first of what he hoped to be many race meetings. He had been involved in a number of other business ventures previous to this including a store and the operation of a popular dance hall at this lakeside location. The track was built on a farm recently acquired by Mr. Crowe and plans to expand and improve the facility were in the works.

(Note - Mr. Crowe and his wife Gertrude, both native to the Orr Lake area, had a large family of accomplished sons and daughters and among them were sons Pat and the late Gary who took up harness racing as their careers.)

A field of horses approach the starting point at the Orr Lake, Ont. track in the 1950's during a Thanksgiving Day program. The most interested spectators can be seen assembled in the infield for the best possible view (Photo courtesy of Huronia Museum archives)

The inaugural race gathering was a twilight meeting with a first post time of 5:00 P.M. and it attracted a very nice crowd of about 1,500 spectators. A previous date had been set in July to open the new facility but inclement weather on that day had caused it to be cancelled altogether. This time a better fate was hoped for. This get together was arranged by Mr. Crowe under the auspices of The Orr Lake Turf Club.

Entrants eager to compete at the new track travelled from as far away to the east as Kingston and to the west from Windsor. A total of 37 horses were entered in the four-race card each consisting of two heats each. Purses offered totalled $1,100 with each race going for the sum of $200 and the Free For All with a purse of $300 as they went three heats.

The fastest race of the day was turned in by Make Believe, a trotter owned and driven by Clarence Lockhart of Collingwood as they stopped the judge's watches in 2:15 2/5. Racing against mainly pacers, the fine trotter took all three heats of the featured event while Pat P Lee (Edwards) also from the Lockhart barn took second spot with a standing of 3-2-2. By virtue of this winning effort by Make Believe, the Lee Harvester mare became the first track record holder for the Orr Lake track.

Other race winners included Peter S Harvester for Jim Somerville, a double heat winner owned by his father Stan Somerville of Waldemar. In the 2:24 Class, J L Van was a double heat winner for a young 25-year-old Keith Waples and owner Jack Waples of Midland. In the Classified event Dolly Todd (Robert Landers) was 1-2 sharing wins with Miss Lee Todd and owner-driver Miller Wray. In the remaining race the winner was Toby Patch for owner and driver Bill Madill of Shelburne as they won both heats. A few other drivers competing that day included Harry Ingles, Gord Kingston, Earl Rowe, George Bullock, Carman Brown, Frank Carnahan, Pop Goulin and Len Guy. Just for the record, Keith Waples drove in eight of the eleven heats that day.

Onward To Day Two

Obviously buoyed by the festivities on opening day in mid-August, Clarence Crowe organized another day of racing that same year. His overall plan was to make it even better than the inaugural and I would say he succeeded. The second day was planned for Monday, October 10 which was the Thanksgiving holiday that year. Nearly all of the horsemen who participated in the first day plus a few new faces were back for this late fall get-together. In addition to the drivers mentioned above from opening day, add in Hughie McLean, Wilbert Hopkins and Roy Lawson to name a few as some 27 horses from various locations were among the entrants. A crowd announced as 2,500 filled the grounds.

The beautiful fall day started with a local gentleman named Lance Rumble referred to as "The Sage of Hillsdale" addressing the large crowd with a few witty remarks. He was followed by Clarence Crowe, track owner and President of the local Turf Club. He stated that as recently as this past spring the track site was just a pasture field. With the assistance of his neighbours he set to work to build the track and by mid-summer it came into being. He was modest in his remarks but felt that the location was among the best in the area and that the track itself was in excellent shape for that day's racing.

The following is a direct quote from the Simcoe Examiner write up. "The view is beautiful and the entire location is a 'natural' for a racetrack. There is a slope on the north side that provides a fine grandstand for thousands. The view to the south is lovely, especially with the autumn woods in full glory of coloring as they were on Thanksgiving Day. Orr Lake and the hills of Craighurst to the south add to the scenery."

On the racing side everything went as planned, complete with a new track record set by the previous record holder Make Believe. She trotted in 2:13 to lower her own record and scored a three-heat victory in the process and did so racing against a field of pacers. All races were three-heat affairs providing many exciting finishes and keen competition. At the close of the day Mr. Crowe expressed his desire to start the 1950 season by staging a meeting in early May. He was obviously very pleased with his new venture.

At this time many people had yet to ever see a mobile starting gate in action. This day, undoubtedly through a communications glitch, they actually got to see not one but two on the grounds. Lee Wright of nearby Elmvale started the first few races and then Tom McDonnell of Hamilton started the balance. The latter had been invited by announcer Tory Gregg of Wingham who apparently assumed he would be doing the starting. It was nice that both could be accommodated.

Races were also held on that same Thanksgiving Monday afternoon at numerous other Ontario locations such as Norwood, Woodbridge, Kingston and various other spots I'm sure, but there always seemed to be enough horses and fans to make each race day a success.

I find this to be an interesting story for a few reasons. First of all hats off to the very enterprising Mr. Crowe for building a new track and making it work. Secondly congratulations to the many horsepeople of the area who immediately joined in and raced their horses at the new track. Also up for kudos were the many race fans who attended the races this year and for many years that followed.

Pat Crowe, son of Orr Lake track owner Clarence Crowe, gained national prominence in the early 1980's when he guided the career of Cam Fella pictured above, unquestionably one of our sport's all time greatest stars.

Who Is It?

Can you identify this gentleman? I doubt he will pose too big a challenge to our expert audience.

May 29, 2019 - 12:26 pmThis week's "Who Is It?"

This week's "Who Is It?" photo was horseman Gary Crowe as identified by several people. The choice was not intended to be difficult but rather because it was related to the overall subject. My thanks to all commenters for your thoughtful words; your input is invaluable.

May 28, 2019 - 12:11 amGreat story about a track

James Milne SAID...

Great story about a track that I hadn't heard of. Tory Gregg, a former pro hockey player from the Paisley area, is a legend in western Ontario. He was the first sports director at CKNX in Wingham and was instrumental in forming the Western Ontario Athletic Association in 1947, which is going strong today. I had the pleasure of hearing him call races at the Kincardine reunion race days in the 1970's. Also I am looking at a program where Gary Crowe was the fourth leading driver at Mohawk in the 1965 spring meet behind Ron Feagan, Harold McKinley and John Finley. Pretty good company!

May 25, 2019 - 2:53 pmGary Crowe, a very close

Brian Lawson SAID...

Gary Crowe, a very close friend. A little correction to the newspaper article; on Wanda Harvester it says Roy Jeffries he was the owner but my dad Roy Lawson was the driver.

May 25, 2019 - 2:42 pmAnother great post

Another great post Robert......Although I'm starting to feel pretty old as I think I know most of the people that raced there. Maybe they were really really young at Orr Lake Raceway......LOL

Of course Gary Crowe and I were good friends so that one was pretty easy.

Keep up the great work.

May 25, 2019 - 12:50 pmThe man in the picture is

W Doug HIe SAID...

The man in the picture is Gary Crowe, brother to Pat.

May 25, 2019 - 12:49 pmGary Crowe Robert, thank you

Gary Crowe
Robert, thank you for sharing the roots of harness racing. Always look forward to your stories

May 25, 2019 - 11:36 amGary Crowe

Gord Brown SAID...

Gary Crowe

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